Consider the white space
Much thought is given to what should be included on the screen in e-learning – menus, text, questions, feedback, graphics, videos and so on. But rarely is there discussion of what isn’t included: the white space.
Did you know?
Bernard et al (2000) conducted research to determine the most appropriate amount of white space to leave on a screen. The study designed three screens identical in content but with differing amounts of white space:
Screen 1 had one character space (3 mm) between columns of content and no space between paragraphs.
Screen 2 had four character spaces (9 mm) between columns of content and a single blank line between paragraphs.
Screen 3 had eleven character spaces (19 mm) between columns of content and four blank lines between paragraphs.
The researchers then asked the test subjects to locate specific information on the screens. The result was that Screen 2 rated highest. Therefore, the study concluded that some white space is better than very little or too much. This is likely to be because too little white space makes a screen appear crowded, making it difficult to read, while too much white space makes a screen appear empty, and can require extra scrolling.
In his book Design Elements, Timothy Samara claims that white space gives the eyes ‘a resting place’. For the learner, this also gives him or her a moment to absorb and reflect on what has just been read or viewed before moving on.
Learning designer insight
Learners need to concentrate on getting to grips with the content, and this won’t happen if they have to spend too much effort ‘taking in’ everything on a crowded screen.
While designing a recent e-learning course, LEO Learning learned that our client was initially concerned that the programme might contain too much white space. But after conducting user testing we were able to lay the client’s fears to rest. The feedback was that the learners enjoyed the exercises and good use of imagery, and were relieved that they weren’t overwhelmed by too much text. In this case, less really was more.
Graphic designer insight
White space should not be considered as merely blank space, but as an essential part of any composition which allows other elements space to breathe.
Forgetting this principle leads to cluttered and busy patterns, creating pages or screens which are hard to read. By separating objects and allowing them room, we help our brains pick up information from a page, both by perceiving those objects more clearly, and allowing ourselves momentarily to rest.
Bernard, M., Chaparro, B. and Thomasson, R. (2000) ‘Finding information on the web: does the amount of whitespace really matter?’, Usability News, vol. 2, no. 1.
Samara, T. (2007) Design Elements: A Graphical Style Manual. Minneapolis: Rockport Publishers Inc.